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The definitive (data-driven) tribute to National Parks

Take a data-driven journey through national parks.
Ankit Gordhandas
Ankit Gordhandas
July 3, 2020
national-parks
Updated on:
October 16, 2020

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Ever since Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, national parks have left hundreds of millions of visitors awestruck. Breathtaking mountains, towering redwoods, serene deserts and beautiful vistas are a small fraction of the value that national parks continue to provide. Little wonder then that they have been called “the best idea America has ever had.” We could think of no better way to celebrate Independence Day than to do a deep dive of some data around National Parks.

Geographical distribution

One of the easiest observations that could be made is that there are way more national parks to the west of the Rockies than are to the east: more than twice as many, in fact. There are a number of reasons for this. By the time the National Parks were being established in earnest, much of the land in the Eastern US was settled. On the other hand, land in the west was still being explored. Even California, now one of the more populous states, was sparsely populated until fairly late in the 20th century. It also helps that Alaska with its large tracts of uninhabited land (and 7 giant national parks) is technically to the west of the Rockies.

Fun fact: Gates of the Arctic is the most remote national park. About 10,000 people make it there every year, and it has no visitor centers, roads or camgrounds. You can get there by a 5-mile hike from the local highway or by getting dropped off in a tiny riverplane (you will be picked up a few days later from a pre-designated spot, but good luck if you're running late!)

National parks by size

Again, no surprise here. Alaska is one of the least populous states. That coupled with the breathtaking (perhaps literally) landscapes make it perfect for national parks.

Fun fact: Gateway Arch National Park – home to the arch in St. Louis, MO is the smallest national park with an area of 192.8 acres (Wrangell-St. Elias is roughly 43,000 times the size of Gateway Arch).

Traffic

The desire to count visitors in national parks began in early 1900's, back when there was no National Park System, and the Department of War and Department of Interior played hot potato with the parks. In 1904, there were roughly 120,000 visitors. In the century since, national parks have gotten increasingly popular, with almost 90 million recorded recreational visitors in 2019.

Popular parks

This was perhaps one of the more surprising parts of our analysis. Instead of just looking for the most popular parks, we decided to look for seasonal variation in visitor volume. As expected, there is a lot of variability. However, Great Smoky Mountains National Park consistently remains the most popular choice for national park visitors throughout the year.

On second thoughts, this does make sense: while many of the national parks remain inaccessible for large parts of the year due to snow, Great Smoky Mountains has something for every season. Additionally, unlike many of the national parks in California, Utah etc., our friend in Tennessee has little in way of competition from other proximal national parks.


Parting thoughts

National parks are truly a national treasure. As a data + national park nerd, nothing gives me more joy than to slice and dice this data to serve up interesting insights. Thanks to Wikipedia and National Park Services for the data that went into this analysis. All analysis was done using Pasteur by Intersect Labs.

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